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Barrell Bourbon Cask Finish Series: Amburana Review

Barrell Bourbon Cask Finish Series: Amburana Review

Barrell Craft Spirits is not exactly new to the world of cask finished whiskey. Back in 2016 they unveiled their first attempt at it with the release of Barrell Whiskey Batch 002 (Batch 001 was just straight corn whiskey from MGP). That release saw corn whiskey being finished in Sherry Butts and would be Barrell’s gateway into the world of finished whiskies. From there they would finish other blends of whiskey, rye whiskey, a series of named whiskies (Dovetail, Seagrass, etc) and even a rum (Tale of Two Islands).

If you have noticed my wording so far, you’ll notice that Barrell has never had a true “finished bourbon.” The reason behind that isn’t a secret – Joe Beatrice has spoken on many podcasts that he believes as soon as bourbon is finished in a secondary barrel that it can no longer be called a “bourbon.” This is a respectable stance to take and one that many enthusiasts have agreed with. However, I can’t help but think that more than a few sales were lost for his early Barrell Whiskey batches and Dovetail because it didn’t include the word “bourbon” even if the base distillate was all bourbon to start with.

That’s why, seven years later, it’s surprising to see Joe (or maybe somebody else inside of Barrell) change the way things have been done and allow a label that plainly says “Barrell Bourbon” followed by the cask it was finished in. It’s not a big deal to me, but I think it shows the direction Barrell is going with their finishing program in the future (hint: it’s becoming a larger part of their business).

Cask Finish Series: Amburana

I figured this one was coming. It seems like every producer that has dabbled with cask finishes has been putting out an Amburana finished something-or-other over the last 5 years. What’s interesting is that Barrell usually starts cask finishing trends, so in a way they’re playing catch up with many of the other Non-Distiller Producers (NDPs) out there. But there is a good reason why they’ve held off this long for this type of finish and I’ll explain why below.

Before I get much further into my review, I must profess my growing contempt for Amburana finishes. This is one of the few cask finishes that has not aged well with my palate. Read more about what makes Amburana so unique here. My first sips of Amburana-finished whiskey was Starlight’s 2019 release of their Cigar Batch Rye Whiskey and Bourbon which I will say I enjoyed.  But as I tasted more examples from other companies these past years, I’ve come to realize that it’s all so heavy-handed that my palate no longer enjoys it.  To me, it always results in the same overpowering notes: Gingerbread/Gingersnap cookies.  Whatever whiskey is used as a base is completely overwhelmed.

I’m not alone in that sentiment either. The guys over at Bourbon Pursuit have openly declared their disdain for it for about a year now. Other reviewers don’t see the hype as well. But enthusiasts keep buying it even with prices going up. The only hurdle used to be how much of the wood (or barrels) producers could obtain. But now with export restrictions easing, Amburana-wood casks aren’t as rare as they once were. That means this category should continue to grow.

Exotic Wood Finishes: A Delicate Balancing Act

Joe and Tripp saw some of these concerns about the potency of Amburana, so they experimented for a full year to learn the best practices before launching the product. During their trials, they determined that finishing all of the bourbon resulted in a blend that was too potent. So they added an unspecified amount of unfinished straight bourbon into the blend at the end to achieve a more balanced approach. They also sourced true 53 gallon Amburana barrels to finish the bourbon in rather than the smaller versions that South American spirits producers typically use. This was by design to hopefully decrease surface area contact with the liquid.

One interesting tidbit about the Amburana barrels that they used is that they sourced it directly from a South American farmer who grows and harvests these trees himself. The guy even dried the staves on the front porch of his house before they were eventually made into a barrel. That barrel, by the way, was only given a toasting treatment, not charred.

For enthusiasts that avoid Barrell products because of their propensity to blend Tennessee Bourbon (Dickel) into the blend, you can breathe easy – Barrell’s Cask Finish Amburana bourbon does not use any. There are only bourbons from Kentucky (a five year component) and Indiana (MGP, obviously) used here. The MGP component sees a range of barrel ages from 5 to 10 years old which should help bring some more aged notes to the blend. The proof is also quite high for a Barrell Bourbon product – coming in at 116.42 proof. All of this should make for a really pleasant sipper, but did they get the balance right? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose is a very sweet affair with scents of a warm Caramel Macchiato and lots of gingerbread. As I mentioned before, it’s always gingerbread for me when Amburana is involved. Other sweet notes include butterscotch chips and a hint of potpourri which probably stems from the uber-fragrant Amburana wood. Outside of that, not much of the bourbon scents really come through.

Palate: The first flavors to hit my tongue are like a wave of Christmas and Thanksgiving blended into one. Lots of gingerbread, chai tea and woody potpourri notes come powering through. Vanilla and cinnamon get their moment in the sun and each sip is surprisingly creamy in texture, but this does not really taste like a whiskey to me. I still think the Amburana notes are overpowering whatever the underlying bourbon flavors may be.

Finish: I find that the finish often emulates the nose. That’s the case here, only with a few tweaks. Vanilla and caramel candy chews linger while a light, fragrant Chamomile Tea note gives nice balance. But the biggest note of them all comes by way of Archway Gingerbread Cookies (a very midwestern cookie brand). The finish is by no means bad, but it might not be what you envisioned when you saw the word “bourbon” on the label.

Score: 7.7/10

Overall, I’m not exactly wild about this bourbon, but I’ll give it credit that it’s one of the better Amburana finishes I’ve had. If you’re wondering why the score is a 7.7, it’s because it still provides a similar level of enjoyment to other Amburana finishes I’ve had. Reading between the lines is my belief that Barrell’s version comes off a bit more subdued than other whiskies using the same finishing wood. I also don’t know what the ratios of finished versus unfinished whiskies were, but after tasting this, I’m guessing Amburana finished liquid was at least 2/3 of the final blend. It still seems like a bit much.

Final Thoughts

This is going to be a bottle that comes down to your preferences for Amburana finishes. Can’t get enough of them? Then buy this one immediately. Do you think Amburana finishes are growing a little long in the tooth? Then skip it. It’s superior to Starlight’s Bourbon and it’s not as heavy-handed as NULU or Seelbach’s versions, but there’s not a whole lot new to be discovered with what Barrell did here.

Regardless of how this release appealed to me, I still have high-hopes for Barrell’s Cask Finished Series. Coming up next will be a review for their “Tale of Two Islands” which is guaranteed to be just as polarizing. I don’t know how often we’ll see releases under this label but I’m secretly very excited to see what else is in the works. Will we eventually see Barrell do a Honey Cask finish? Stay tuned!

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